Samuel L. Jackson Unlocks Secret To His Most Successful Roles: His Hair

From 'Pulp Fiction' to 'Jumper,' the actor explains the origins of his characters' iconic 'dos.

Samuel L. Jackson is an immense talent, an Oscar-nominated actor of incredible range and proficiency. But from whence comes his ferocity, his poise, his ability to command the screen with his mere presence? Could the secret lie in his classical training? Could it be from his own profound life experiences? Could it be … from his hair?

Consider this: The effectiveness of a Jackson performance is directly proportional to the uniqueness of his character’s hairstyle. Crazy hair in “Pulp Fiction”? That’s an Oscar nom. Shaved head in “Star Wars”? Upstaged by Yoda. Crazy hair in “Resurrecting the Champ”? Return to form! Normal hair in “Changing Lanes”? Return to Blockbuster!

Is Jackson a modern-day Samson? (Sam, Samson — coincidence?) He invited us beneath the wig to find out.

Film: “Pulp Fiction”
Jackson role: Jules Winnfield
Hairstyle: greasy Jheri curl
Looks like: Lionel Richie circa 1984

Jackson’s Jules is a pop-culture junkie, a man of all times and yet also specifically of this time and this place. His hairstyle says, “I’m just like Fonzie. And how did Fonzie act? Cool.”

“Quentin’s original idea was that Jules would have a big Afro. His mistake was, he sent this young white girl to South Central Los Angeles to pick up an Afro wig, and this is what she came back with,” Jackson said of the Jheri curl’s origin. “And I looked at it and said, ‘Oh, this is perfect!’ I’m going, ‘Remember Ice Cube and Dr. Dre and all those guys had this hair when they were N.W.A with Eazy-E?’ So I put it on and sprayed it with some stuff and was like, ‘This is Jules!’ ”

Film: “Unbreakable”
Jackson role: Elijah Price, a.k.a. Mr. Glass
Hairstyle: frizzy afro, parted to one side
Looks like: Frederick Douglass

M. Night Shyamalan’s neo-realist comic caper pits an ordinary superhero (Bruce Willis) against Jackson’s Elijah Prince, a brilliant master criminal, whose aggressive and bold exterior belies a startling physical fragility. Jackson’s stiff hair denotes a man of anger, its style a hostile rebuke to those who would stand in his way.

“Night actually chose the hair, even though we were going in the same direction when we were thinking about it. We were thinking Frederick Douglass,” Jackson explained. “Big Afro with the part, swooping to the side. Fortunately, we wanted hair that was big and like this [he demonstrates with his hands], and this is what he chose for Elijah. It was cool.”

Film: “Jackie Brown”
Jackson role: Ordell Robbie
Hairstyle: long, straight hair, sometimes braided

Looks like: the backup singer from “Super Fly”

Like most Jackson characters, gunrunner Ordell Robbie is one bad mutha (shut your mouth!) — just smart enough to be scary, not smart enough to be intimidating. The hair, in a way, perfectly mirrors Ordell’s plight as a man who’s always hanging onto some former glory, always one step behind.

“OK, now, Quentin [Tarantino] kind of fought me on this hair, ’cause he was kind of saying, ‘Nobody wears their hair in that ‘Super Fly’ mode anymore,’ and it was kind of passé,” Jackson revealed. “I was trying to explain to them that Ordell was kind of stuck in this time frame, this period in his life, and he had just enough money to kind of keep his hair straight, but not enough money to keep it done around the edges. So … some days [my hairdresser] would put it in two braids, some days he would have it in one French braid in the back. We made up our minds that we were gonna do stuff to it until he got desperate, and then it would be all loose and wild, and kind of jacked up.”

Film: “Jumper”
Jackson role: Roland Cox
Hairstyle: close-cropped, white
Looks like: Uncle Ben

Who is Roland? What does he want? Why is he after Jumpers? Jackson thinks his hair provides a clue.

“We wanted it to be very close, very white, very striking when you see him,” Jackson said of his hairstyle. “In my mind, Roland’s sort of timeless. We don’t know how old he is. We know he’s old, ’cause he’s been around, his white hair informs us of that, but he’s also very virile and breaks down walls and cracks floors and takes a lot of punishment. People tend to look different in science-fiction films, and I figured that would be an interesting look for me, ’cause I hadn’t done it yet.”

Check out everything we’ve got on “Jumper.”

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